A near-total absence of nation-states in the Middle East

A near-total absence of nation-states in the Middle East

It’s strange. You go just a little south of Turkey’s border and all of a sudden there are no nation states around; there are either sectarian and ethnic warlords or companies that govern territories and imitate the actions of nation states.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE), one of those 21st century hybrids, set up a State Ministry for Artificial Intelligence last week. This will be the first of its kind. The announcement came just as Area 2071, a state of the art incubation center for technology startups, was opened. Twelve entities - including Pfizer, Procter and Gamble, Ernst and Young, IBM International, and Wamda Capital - signed MOUs to support Area 2071 for both mentoring and easy exit of startups. Startups lead the innovation process around the globe these days and the UAE has announced its intention of becoming a hub for them, and being at the forefront of the technological revolution.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is this week hosting the Future Investment Initiative Conference. The focus is again on the disruptive technologies of the new industrial revolution. While the UAE is walking the walk with Area 2071, Saudi Arabia is still only talking the talk. Yet prominent figures were at the conference including Larry Fink of Blackrock Investments, Christine Lagarde of the IMF, venture capitalist Peter Thiel, and Lawrence Summers of Harvard University. Saudi Arabia isn’t really a nation-state, but it somehow clings on and takes part in globalization.

Elsewhere, Iraqi government forces, together with Iranian militias, have been fighting to purge Mosul and Kirkuk of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) Peshmerga fighters (even though the KRG is supposed to be part of the Iraqi government). Eventually, the central Iraqi government gained the upper hand and KRG forces retreated, leaving all oil revenues in the areas to the central administration. Iraq seems to be a failed nation state, fighting a civil war to reimpose its sovereignty. It is all very 20th century.

The reason why the KRG lost the battle for Kirkuk is also interesting. The Pesmerga forces of the opposition PUK decided to leave the peshmerga of the governing KDP alone on the battleground. Despite the Kurdistan independence referendum of Sept. 25, the tribal allegiance of Kurdish fighters is more important than any national identity. Other Kurdish territories in places outside of Iraq are a different story entirely. If states are built by nations, the battle for Kirkuk tells us that the Kurds are not there yet.

Then in Syria last week, the battle of Raqqa ended. ISIL left the city to U.S.-backed YPG/PKK forces, camouflaged as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Note that Syria as a nation-state is so decrepit that its civil war has seen the birth of several non-state actors trying to evolve into states, fighting each other as well as the Damascus government. There are certainly some strange actors on the ground. ISIL, a non-state actor controlling Raqqa, is an abomination to humanity and has declared war on the world. Idlib has recently seen something akin to an al-Qaeda state under Tahrir al-Sham. The YPG/PKK, another non-state actor, is a U.S.-declared terrorist organization that is nonetheless backed by it.

Four states in the Middle East no longer function as sovereign entities. Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen have all become battlegrounds for non-state actors. This is chilling. This is the end of the established order in our neighborhood. When this last happened before around the late 19th century, the Ottoman lost an empire. Now it is happening again.

There are two industrial countries in this neighborhood: Turkey and Israel. The trappings of a nation state turned Turkey into an industrial country. However, the order created after the First World War failed to create more nation states in our neighborhood. The civil wars is an indication of this failure. It is obvious that noone has any strategy to bring order to this chaos. So now is the time to agree on a general strategy to move forward.

I recommend decision-makers read Dani Rodrik’s recent “principled defense” of the nation state. It is based on the proposition that markets and prosperity need rules, and that there are no globally enforced rules yet. Part of the story of the 21st century will have to be the integration of the Muslim-majority world into this order. If we are to bring stability back to the Middle East, we need less trenches and more pluralism in our neighborhood. That means getting different people together around a founding myth, the kernel of any nation-state.

War is the tried-and-tested, yet painful, method of doing this. The post-modern approach of the Gulf is something entirely new. Time will tell which is more successful.

Opinion, Güven Sak, Middle East